They Won't Stay Dead

The Changing Guises of Horror Film and Censorship

by Sean Bell

27 May 2011


“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
—Mae West

Think of Angel Sala. Before we dust off old arguments and rev up our chainsaws, spare a moment’s consideration—take two, even—for the beleaguered director of the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya, better known internationally as the Sitges Film Festival. For anyone who might assume what follows is safely academic, Sala is a man who could spend the next year in prison.

Now think of Spain, which wears some scars publicly, some privately, and forgets none of them. The context is interesting, because the comfortable notion of shared cultural norms in the West does not apply; the nation has not forgotten Franco, or what he wrought, or what is, in the grand scheme of things, truly offensive. Nearly 40 years of fascism’s thuggish, paranoid narcissism, cinematically accompanied by a state subsidized stream of gaudy costume dramas and pseudo-religious pablum, engendered an almost psychological resistance to film censorship in much of the Spanish national character. Understand: the country of Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar does not take such matters lightly.

cover art

A Serbian Film

Director: Angel Sala

And yet, via a provocatively dubious interpretation of Article 189.7 of the Spanish penal code, Sala was arrested early in March of this year, at the behest of a Barcelona prosecutor and a vocal Catholic family group, and accused of exhibiting child pornography. What he actually did was screen A Serbian Film. This is not a matter of interpretation, or semantic debate—whatever else one can say about Srdjan Spasojevic’s wilfully distressing polemical horror, A Serbian Film is not child pornography.

The predictably grisly details of the scenes in question are not worth reviewing here; those whose curiosity extends beyond morbidity will be able to discover them easily enough. The point is simple: It was staged. It was fake. It was not real. If it was, a conspiracy of unimaginable proportions would have been necessary to disguise it as a professionally realised, internationally distributed motion picture. All those involved, from director to best boy, would now be in police custody. This should—note the grim emphasis—be self-evident. So what’s the story?

There is a counter-argument of course, of a kind instictive to the censorious mindset, that says if a fabricated article of fiction looks like child pornography—kind of, if you squint a bit—and could conceivably fulfill the same evil function as child pornography, then it is, in all the ways that matter, child pornography. This is what’s generally called an ‘intuitive truth’, and what those of us who once studied philosophy call ‘bullshit’. Speaking to El Pais, the Spanish director and novelist David Treuba succinctly observed that by the prosecutor’s logic, “Christopher Lee will be arrested one day [and] accused of biting young virgins’ jugular veins.”

Enthusiastically disturbing exhibits from horror’s murkier depths are, if nothing else, always useful in the wider debate over censorship. It clears the argument of dead weight, as it were. Or maybe it’s easier to say that there will always be more high-profile controversialists ready and eager to defend extremes of satire, political speech or ‘high’ art than those willing to do the same for the manufactured shocks and juvenile excesses of gory schlock. When a horror movie finds itself under fire, its defenders tend to come, sometimes exclusively, from within the insular worlds of film and horror themselves. Perhaps bearing a certain quotation by Pastor Martin Niemöller in mind, they look after their own.

Such has been the case with Sitges. Ten Spanish film festival directors declared in an open letter their support for Sala and condemnation of his arrest, implicitly and pointedly invoking the darker chapters in Spain’s history in their criticisms of the Barcelona Office of the Public Prosecutor. Eli Roth, who is as protective of horror as he is passionate about it, took to Twitter to remind us that Sala was a man with a family, and cut to the terrifying nub of the matter: “It’s the subject-matter they are prosecuting him for.”

Along with the outrage came the nauseous realization of the implications that follow. Mindful of the genre’s gritted-teeth relationship with censors down the decades, there are some, both in and outside of the industry, who will be wearily familiar with its various narratives. They will, likely as not, be aware of the manifest hypocrisies of the anonymous, unaccountable MPAA in the US, or the depressing legacy of the ‘video nasties’ hysteria that solidified British film censorship into a prosecutorial bureaucracy and imagined a link between movies and murder.

They might recall more recent tabloid hyperventilations over Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (the publicity surrounding which was a work of art in itself). They may even know the absurd travails of Cannibal Holocaust, the 1980 Italian gorno which entered legend as the movie so gruesomely convincing that director Ruggero Deodato was charged with making a snuff film, and had to hastily produce several members of his cast to prove to a court’s satisfaction that he hadn’t killed them on camera. Which, when you think about it, is a huge compliment to the special effects team.

Knowing all of this, they will know how it usually goes: the movie is targeted sometimes through the director, but ultimately through the distributor. That bans are rare and usually temporary, and prosecutions almost always unsuccessful. But the case of Sala is different—it was an experiment with a relatively fresh tactic, and an escalation. Going after the head of a film festival is profoundly unusual, not to mention counter-productive. The deed is done, so to speak, and Sala’s conviction cannot hurt A Serbian Film (now buoyed by a fresh wave of scandalous publicity) unless the intention was to send an unspoken message. This is where the portents become ominous.

“Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”
—- George Bernard Shaw

Now, an interlude to kick a sleeping dog: the lawsuit against Sala reminded me of an argument, long since concluded and all but forgotten, that I have never been entirely able to let go of. It concerned a film almost nobody (including myself) actually saw, and which even fewer people seemed to enjoy. Roland Joffe’s Captivity didn’t exactly shake the pillars of Heaven on its release in 2007. I only think of it now because its own sad little controversy was where I first detected the kind of message that I believe has been sent with the arrest of Sala.

Captivity was, by all accounts, an ugly little waste of celluloid, lacking the apparent thought and serious intent that lies behind A Serbian Film, and concerning the lasciviously portrayed kidnapping and torture of a young fashion model played by Elisha Cuthbert. The debacle began with the ad campaign—a lurid four-panel billboard grimly detailing via ham-fisted implication the stages of ‘abduction’, ‘confinement’, ‘torture’ and finally ‘termination’—which incurred the ire of a vocal minority, mostly middle-class Los Angeles parents, who were bolstered when Joss Whedon released a public letter to the MPAA asking for the ads to be removed, comparing their effect to that of “being mugged”.

Almost uniquely among horror controversies, this seemed to be one where everybody was on the same side, and their complaints were reinforced when it became apparent that After Dark Films, the company behind Captivity, had not cleared the ads with the MPAA. So, the campaigners kept repeating hysterically, this had nothing to do with censorship. Rather, the crime in question was failing to abide by procedure. Which was odd, because this certainly didn’t seem like a campaign intent on upholding the sacrosanct name of bureaucracy. However, they recognised a means to an end when they saw one. The billboards were quietly removed, and that should have been an end to it.

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